A House of their Own: Helping People with Disabilities in North Macedonia

A House of their Own: Helping People with Disabilities in North Macedonia

Published: Aug 25, 2021 Reading time: 4 minutes

To the casual observer, the beige two-storey home in Demir Kapija, a small town in the southern part of North Macedonia, looks like any other: fresh paint and tidy landscaping attests to its recent construction. But to Gjoko, 36, one of five residents, the newly built dwelling is much more than just another house. It is the realisation of independence.

Before his move, Gjoko had spent more than a decade at the Demir Kapija Special Institution, where he was committed in 2010. Institutions like the one in Demir Kapija are residential care units where residents are excluded from society and do not have sufficient control over their lives.

“I liked that there were a lot of people [at the institution]; I enjoyed sitting and talking with caregivers,” Gjoko said. “But I did not like the fact that I didn’t have my own clothes or things. For example, if I put a shirt into the wash, I would lose it. I also did not like the fact that everything was scattered.”

The backyard garden has become his oasis

With springtime in full bloom at his new home, the backyard garden has become his oasis for Gjoko and his roommates. Gjoko enjoys gardening and taking care of the flowers and vegetables – something he couldn’t do while living in the institution.

Gjoko and his roommates were resettled from the institution as part of a EU-funded process of deinstitutionalisation that is being implemented by different civil society organisations, including People in Need (PIN). 

So far, two residential homes have been turned into group homes for persons with intellectual disabilities as part of the PIN-implemented project, “Getting a Life - Deinstitutionalisation of Residents of Demir Kapija Institution.” Group homes in Demir Kapija and Negotino were officially opened in May 2021 in a ceremony hosted by the Macedonian Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Jagoda Šahpaska, and Nicola Bertolini, Head of the European Union Delegation in North Macedonia. In attendance also were Demir Kapija Mayor Lazar Petrov and representatives of PIN.

“Deinstitutionalisation” and “community living” are proven tactics to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. They represent a more humane and sustainable alternative to the residential care in institutions, where the residents’ individualised needs cannot always be met. While deinstitutionalisation is not new in North Macedonia – it has been underway for at least 20 years – the mechanisms in place have been uneven. None of the institutions previously targeted have been transformed completely, nor were the personalised services and community responses adequately developed. PIN is working to accelerate this process.

While people with disabilities may require extra assistance, independent living is the best way to help them fully participate in society. For instance, Gjoko and his roommates are supported by six caregivers, who assist is basic needs like housework, finding employment, and making social connections.

“I’ve learned to turn on the washing machine here,” said Gjoko proudly. “I have learned to prepare a snack or something to eat and a few days ago, we were making a cake.”

Everyone has the right to develop their potential and to be empowered, which is why PIN has worked for more than a decade to change how people with disabilities in the Western Balkans are treated. PIN has been supporting the process of deinstitutionalisation, promoting independent living services, and campaigning against prejudice and discrimination. In 2010, this effort was extended from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to include North Macedonia.

At the moment, PIN is working at nine independent living houses in the region, with work underway to refurbish units and increase capacity. As part of the project, PIN is working to develop community-based services for people with intellectual disabilities and helping in the creation of self-advocacy groups for promoting independent living. When the project ends next year, 36 additional residents will have left the residential care facility and moved into their own independent living space in Demir Kapija .

For Gjoko, there is no place that he’d rather be.

“All of us are arranging the house in the morning, and we also take care of the yard,” he said. “We are listening to music and in the evening, we all watch movies together. It was nice in the institution, but here it is nicer. I really like the fact that I know that no one can take my personal things.”

Author: Maša Živojinović & Maria Dimkovska